Content is a terrible word — an overwhelming, overloaded word. Don’t believe me? Try this simple exercise. Ask ten different people to define content. Ask anyone: your co-workers, clients, your boss, publishers, partners, even your mom. I’d expect you to get 10 different answers, ranging from definitions focused on branded content to ads, products, sitcoms, Netflix originals or in-store end caps. And guess what? All of those answers would be right. That one word — content — can indeed embody all of those things.

Honestly, it’s not a surprise that we have let content transcend into its current broad and somewhat amorphous state.  As an industry, we don’t do ourselves any favors.  We tend to use catchall words that have been stripped down to their lowest common denominator.  Words that control the transaction of billions of dollars, as well as endless time and resources.  Words that cross disciplines, connect ecosystems, require new talents and skillsets, and sell products and services.  Words like social media, influencers and, yes, content, have come to encompass multiple elements, facets and practices within our industry.

Content is by no means the first word to fall victim to the ad industry’s gradual catchall effect.  Consider the word digital.  Twenty years ago, digital was the responsibility of a single team.  If a project had something to do with a computer screen, it automatically fell solely to the digital team.  Today you would be hard-pressed to find anyone that doesn’t have digital included in their remit.  Content is heading in the same direction.  But, if history has taught us anything, we need not wait 20 years to acknowledge the unique expertise needed within the nuanced aspects and different types of content.

The trajectory of content into catchall territory has a lot to do with the problem that content is looking to solve: how to gain the attention of the ever-elusive consumer.  So, instead of spending so much time and energy on defining “what” exactly content is or debating what it isn’t, it’s time to focus on the why, when and how of content.

Long gone are the days when a brand can create a few assets and buy eyeballs.  Today, ads are skippable, changeable, mutable and ignorable, giving consumers expanded power over the messages they receive.  The marketplace has taken heed of this transition and, as a result, greater value is placed on audience connections made outside the confines of traditional ads.

For example, NBC has announced the reduction of its ad inventory and placed a heightened focus on integrations.  Publisher Condé Nast announced a major diversification of its revenue streams, citing a target 50/50 split in advertising and non-advertising revenue.  iHeart now does so much more than stream radio; it is a full-fledged entertainment company with radio, digital, outdoor, live events, talent, entertainment tentpoles and social conversations.

Content might be a terrible word, but we need it.  It is important to recognize that the goal of content in its many forms is to help brands break through the clutter and get to their audience.  A lot has happened in the last five to seven years that has caused (or forced) brands and agencies alike to rethink the way they plan:

  • Evolving consumer behaviors.  Today, consumers have more control than ever before in regards to what they watch and when, as well as what they share and care about.  The consumer journey looks more like an intricate treasure map than a straightforward funnel.
  • Direct to brand solutions.  The expert storytelling capabilities of publishers’ programming and editorial teams are now becoming available to brands.  Publishers are building state-of-the-art studios equipped to create the same caliber of content they push out to their viewers, but directly for brands.
  • Proliferation of content opportunities.  Brands have never been presented with more avenues where they can target their messages.  From publisher partnerships to native advertising and dozens of influencers with their own unique audiences, content has plenty of spaces where it can take shape.  Just think, a thousand days ago Instagram Stories didn’t exist, HQ Trivia wasn’t a thing and Facebook Watch was still 600 days away from being announced.  Who knows what new and innovative opportunities are on the horizon in this fast-changing space (and what FTC guidelines might come with them)?

At the end of the day, what this disruption means is that opportunities for content are ever-plentiful and ever-evolving.  However, in order to take advantage of these opportunities, you need two things:  A team of people that can take advantage of these opportunities and maximize them to their full potential, as well as access.  Access to audiences, experiences, production studios, writers, show-runners, scripts, technology, insights, talent, licensing and production.  The easiest way to gain access to these myriad resources is with one thing: dollars.

By leveraging the power of the media dollar, an experienced team can unlock the marketplace’s trove of content opportunities.  There is no agency or team more dangerous or valuable than the one that can harness the power of the media dollar and navigate this complex space.  In part through our recognition of the growing power of the media dollar, Spark Foundry redefined and restructured itself in 2013 to place content and data at the center of everything we do.  We built a team of more than 150 content creatives across the U.S. who are developing concepts, connecting the dots across the consumer journey, scaling messages via strategic distribution and filling owned asset libraries.

When we move beyond buying white space to place an ad message and start creating experiences, we can achieve great things for our clients.  We connect with consumers outside of traditional ad placements, work with top tier production studios and directors, build out asset libraries that live beyond a flowchart, get our clients into the feeds of top celebrities and, most importantly, we sell products and services.

Through a combination of making dollars work harder, trusting different teams to create brand stories and demanding more from our partners, we are delivering effective and impactful results for our clients.  It may seem like a scary proposition for teams to shift to a new model, but it is one we have quantified many times over.  When we make media dollars work harder, our clients win.

In the end, yes, content is a packed word with various interpretations, but when we get beyond the semantics we solve real business problems.  When we leverage media dollars to unlock new brand opportunities, the possibilities are endless.

This article originally appeared on MediaVillage.

Author: Erin Vogel, Senior Vice President, Creative Content Lead Central Region, Spark Foundry.